The paper we know and use today—made from trees—has its roots in the mid-19th Century (previously, paper was made from rags and other natural fibers). With the increase in literacy and the shortage of rags, people turned their attention to other cellulose sources, such as trees. While the demand for virgin paper has increased, the clearing of forests and the pollution it created hasn’t been a concern for 150 years. But what people have come to realize is that these resources are not unlimited, and unless we find creative and economical solutions to satisfy our needs, we are not going to be able to sustain our demands in the long run.
What’s so unsustainable about paper production? Unfortunately, what most people don’t know is that “virgin” paper production is the third largest generator of air toxins, waste and water pollutants in the world, and among the largest in energy and fresh water consumption. Not to mention the clearing of non-sustainably harvested forests which also affect ecosystems. In contrast, one ton of recycled paper uses 64% less energy, 50% less water, produces 74% less air pollution, saves 17 trees, and creates 5 times more jobs than one ton of paper products from virgin wood pulp. (EPA)
It used to be that the quality of recycled paper was subpar to the virgin counterpart, but that isn’t the case anymore. Technology and market acceptance have made improvements possible in quality and technical specifications of recycled paper. It has generally cost more because the recycled pulp has been negotiated in the open market, as opposed to a paper mill that already has the infrastructure to produce its own paper from its own virgin pulp.
If we consider that 90% of paper in homes and businesses are discarded within a year (Conservatree), we begin to see the importance of recycling the fibers of virgin paper—which can be reused 12 times. Recycled paper may contain 2 sets of information: Preconsumer waste and Postconsumer waste. Preconsumer waste is basically scraps of virgin paper that can be turned into pulp again, and Postconsumer waste (PCW) is the recovered paper products that have been collected from homes and businesses. While the Federal Trade Commission specifies that only recovered materials qualify as recycled paper (scraps from paper mills), and no Postconsumer waste is required, the inclusion of PCW means that the paper has a higher content of reused materials, meaning less paper will end up in the landfills.
When specifying paper, I've found these links to be very useful: